Mise-en-scene in Lagaan (2001).

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Disclaimer: I do not own the above image.

Also stylised with tagline as “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India”

Mise-en-scene is elemental to consider when examining a film’s style. It makes up all the details that deliver the story to the audience, and whether overt or subtle it serves to enhance what we receive. Director Ashutosh Gowariker’s 2001 film Lagaan is a blend of the genres of sports drama, Bollywood, period, and epic with a running time that exceeds three and a half hours. It received a very high level of international critical acclaim. “Lagaan” is Hindi for ‘taxation’ and the film follows a small West Indian village’s plight to erase their tax commitment to the British settlement. This paper will aim to clarify how the film Lagaan uses mise-en-scene to achieve a more vivid and rich production.

The acting style is dramatic and typical of South Asian cinema. In the film, a British captain named Andrew Russell (played by Paul Blackthorne) on a whim first doubles the tax of the provinces he oversees, and then reverses it based on the outcome of a cricket match against one village. His younger sister Elizabeth (played by Rachel Shelley) secretly helps the Indians to train for the match. Bhuvan (portrayed by Amir Khan) is the leading protagonist and delivers many heartfelt lines that represent his values. His good character is reinforced by his actions and his strong will and belief in his community. The acting is not however any sort of caricature of Indians or British Imperialists. “For me it was not really an anti-British film. I don’t think it was for the director either. It’s a story about human beings. Amongst the British you have Elizabeth, who is a wonderful character. The three Seniors don’t like what Russell is doing and in the village you have Lakha who is not a nice guy. You also have the scene with the untouchable, where the whole village is shown in a bad light. The film was not really anti-British, it was about human beings. It’s a story about the triumph of the human spirit and about the underdog achieving the impossible. That you can put into any society or any timeframe. The film was really that for me.” (2002, pers. comm. 28. October)

The direction of the film is a suited to a period drama. The character of Gauri, the leading female (played by Gracy Singh) is presented as a typical unmarried young lady. She behaves traditionally but is shown to stick to her beliefs and attitudes in character, as is typical of leading ladies in the Bollywood genre. Another critical area to examine is the acting style of the men of Champaner; they consistently speak passionately, if out of care or anger, which really elevates the plot and twists of the film. Khan who also produced the film said in an interview that:

The villagers of Champaner wear traditional west Indian clothing and accessories that were common in British Indian times. The men of the village have their appearance made more distinctive by change in hairstyles, arm bands and jewellery. They are mostly costumed in various white and tan linens with subtle patterns, often but not exclusively.

The women of Champaner are similarly adorned with traditional jewellery and outfits. The wives of the village are not given as much focus as Bhuvan’s mother (Suhasini Mulay) and Gauri are. Gauri is often styled with kohl lining her eyes and in dyed colourful fabrics with traditional Desi ‘bandhani’ patterns (tie-dyed). Bhuvan’s mother unlike the younger women, is always dressed in white, and this is used to distinguish her mature age, typical of South Asian communities.

The British male characters on screen are constantly in variations of official uniform for work or crisp white clothing intended as cricketing athletic wear. Almost all of them have neatly managed moustaches and/or beards, unlike the men of Champaner, some of whom are clean-shaven. This is another factor that distinguishes the characters’ community customs.

Although other British ladies of the cantonment wear a variety of colours Lady Elizabeth almost always is dressed in white. While the colour represents maturity for Bhuvan’s mother, for Elizabeth it is an outward expression of her purity of heart and angelic goodwill towards the native community. In the scene where Elizabeth joins the villagers at an evening prayer event, she is once again outfitted in white with delicate, subtle lacing on her dress. Gauri however is dressed in a golden yellow ensemble that matches with Bhuvan’s own attire and then they are dance partners in the next song. This is indicative of how Gauri shares her roots with Bhuvan, something that Elizabeth, who is also developing affection for Bhuvan, cannot attain. In a later song, Elizabeth daydreams of Bhuvan dressed in Brisish costume and dancing with her like an Englishman, showing a version of Bhuvan that slightly fits her world. The fantasy is obvious here and is mirrored on the dance scene juxtaposed moments after ‘Rhada Kasai Na Jale’.  Gauri and Bhuvan are shown wearing the same colours in more scenes as the film progresses, indicative of how the characters are suitable for each other romantically. In the sequence for ‘O Rey Chori’ Elizabeth wears a red dress and a pink dress dancing alone and romantically fantasising, and this is an external display of her passionate feelings for Bhuvan. A final noteworthy change in Elizabeth’s costume is at the end of the film, when she is dressed in grey and departs in the rain. These elements represent her sorrow at having to leave Bhuvan and India behind (although the rain is very much welcomed and needed by the villagers).

Framing and camera work is used to edit the film and establish character relationships and drama. In the scene where Captain Russell wagers the villagers waiving the tax, there is a steady zoom in on Bhuvan. We read from Rabiger (1989): “in filmmaking everything is relativistic, there are almost no formulae: compositionally you are always showing the specifics of relationship between one object and another, one person and another, and implying the relationship of one idea, principle, or judgment to another.”  As the film progresses and more community members from surrounding provinces come to observe the training, there are increased tracking shots. These help to establish the progression of the weeks without it being given in dialogue as exposition or through narration.

Camera work is adapted to the actions in particular scenes. When the villagers are training for the cricket match and during the match, there is a plethora of shots used to convey the actions. Slow motion, repeat shots,

The rule of thirds comes into play in a lot of shots, with the composition. Here we can scrutinise the scene where Bhuvan enlists Kachra (Aditya Lakhia) the village ‘untouchable’ as the eleventh player on their team. The camera work is decisively arranged to showcase the distance between the two caste groups and the politics of the taboo matter. In some shots, Bhuvan is centered so as to show the community glaring at his back in disbelief. In other shots, Kachra is positioned off centre and this shows his discomfort, as if wanting to be out of frame and out of sight.

Close ups are often used throughout the film to highlight the actors’ expression and enhance the tension and excitement being experienced in the scene. In the scene where Elizabeth first meets the villagers in secret her voice fades out as the camera slowly zooms in to Gauri’s face. This portrays Gauri’s realisation that the object of her affection and Elizabeth may bond over their shared interest in the Indian team winning the match. This is followed by a shot that tracks from Bhuvan’s face across to Elizabeth’s, as Gauri observes them discussing the rules of cricket.

About an hour and twenty minutes into the film the plot is snaked a little with some ‘behind the scenes’ scenes. An establishing shot and caption tells the audience that the large European looking structure is the British headquarter located in the Indian province. As Captain Russell is being berated by his seniors, he is seated and they are facing him from the front and sides, and this serves to reinforce that although Captain Russell is on screen a lot more than the seniors, he still has others to answer to within the cantonment.

Production design of the film and the settings pave the emotional response the audience has to the film. We are shown the contrast of the refined way the Raja and the British cantonment live, with the villagers of Champaner. The arid texture of Champaner is highlighted by talk of the drought they have faced, and this makes the audience receptive to the possibility of rain, with hope as it does for the villagers. In terms of production design mingled with framing, at the final match, we see how villagers group together and observe from the ground, while the British are seated at tables and far away from the locals.

The soundtrack of the film by A. R. Rahman, a widely acclaimed composer in Bollywood, is crucial to consider with the staging. Song and dance is vital to screenplay delivery in Indian cinema. It is not actually always part of the overall storytelling and cinema experience for audiences however in Lagaan it really does complement the plot. In the scene where Bhuvan is showing the child Tipu how to play the local game of Gili-Danda (meaning ball-stick) the track of ‘Chale Chalo’ is sampled as an instrumental, which is a subtle motif hinting at when a scene is going to turn out with a fortunate circumstance. Playback singers are used for voices with the actors’ lip synching, with the exception of Shelley. The lyrics of each song, written by Javed Akther, reflect the part of the narrative reached in the timeline of the film. These song and dance numbers enrich the community aspect of Champaner to the audience, after there is so much frustration directed at Bhuvan for his acceptance of Captain Russell’s wager.

The is a bit of foreshadowing as thunder rumbles in the scene where a jealous character comes to the cantonment to snitch on Elizabeth for her assistance, and that is one other diegetic example – but no rain falls. Narration by Amitabh Bhachan is provided non-diegetically, a decision that helps Indian audiences due to uneven literacy levels amongst the Indian population, the key target audience that Gowariker and Khan had in mind.

All the elements of mise-en-scene discussed above come together and synthesise the epic story. The scenes are set and provide an ambiance of history and drama on a culturally rich community backdrop. The film over a decade after release is still praised for all these critical features. The mise-en-scene of Lagaan no doubt helped it reach its success at the box office and beyond, as all the specifics harmonise and give the audience a rich cinematic experience. There is so much more I could write about this film, but I didn’t because I was struggling to watch a 3+ hour film when I had other assignments to complete – (inb4 “… r  u posting ur uni assignment as a blog post?”).

Even if you are someone who doesn’t like to watch foreign films, sports films, musical films, period films, I still highly recommend that you watch this, because it is amazing. I plan to give my lecturer a copy of the film. (I have to see her anyway because she is insisting on mailing the hard copies of our work back to us.) 🙂

Reference List:

  • Andre Bazin, ‘The Evolution of the Language of Cinema’ What is Cinema?, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976, pp23-40
  • Michael Rabiger, ‘Mise-en-Scene Basics (Chapter 10)’, Directing: Film Techniques and Aesthetics, Boston: Focal Press, 1989, pp101-126
  • Vincent LoBrutto, ‘Visualization for a Screenplay’, The Filmmaker’s Guide to Production Design, New York, Allworth Press, 2002.
  • Guardian interview with actor and producer Amir Khan: <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2002/oct/27/bollywood.features
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